Culture Heritage

History Around the Coast Path – Part II – Early Medieval –  Saints & Monasteries, Kings & Castles

SWCPA Chair, Bob Mark, shares the second article in his series that explores the history on and around the South West Coast Path.

The first two centuries after the fall of Roman rule in Britain in AD 410 are often called the ‘Dark Ages’ and dark they certainly are, with the legions gone, the largely Christian Romano-British inhabitants fought to secure their islands against waves of Anglo-Saxon invaders. A mix of pagan peoples predominantly from North Germany and Denmark. 

What was happening in the South West?

The Romans had rapidly developed Exeter as a fortress on the Celtic tribal settlement of the Dumnonii after the invasion in 55 AD. It was occupied by the 5,000 men of II Legion, and commanded by the future Emperor, Vespasian.  Judging by the lavish ruins excavated in 1970s Exeter, he clearly felt that a luxurious bath house for his tough boys was a priority.  A scant decade later the Romans felt safe enough in the south west to move this legion to Gloucester.  Much of the area further west was sparsely populated, less fertile, and apart from the Roman Imperial mines, of limited value.  By 410, Exeter – Isca Dumnoniorum – and its port of Topsham, was in decline. Nevertheless, it was secure, massive Roman walls in Exeter can still be seen, and it was an obvious choice as capital for the Romano-British kingdom of Dumnonia which came into being and extended right across the south-west into Somerset, where the marshes formed a natural barrier.  

Gradually the invading Anglo-Saxons, now firmly established in the new Kingdom of Wessex, pushed these Romano-Britons further west. Some of these Briton refugees crossed the Channel to settle in Northern France, naming their new home ‘Brittany’. By the early 700s the Kings of Wessex, now Christian, had annexed Devon, they called themselves the Englisc, the Dumnonii were a subject people in Exeter known simply as the Britons. Only across the Tamar in Cornwall, did these Britons rule themselves.

The 5th and 6th centuries were remarkable for the number of Welsh, Irish and Breton Celtic missionaries who came to the South West. Their influence was most deeply felt in Cornwall. The synod of Whitby in 663-664, a meeting of the Anglo-Saxon Christian Church met to decide whether the Celtic or Roman rites should prevail. In a far-reaching decision, the synod favoured the Roman (Catholic), rites which were to endure in England until the 16th century Protestant Reformation.  Wessex adopted the Roman rite, Dumnonia did not.  More border friction!  

The arrival of St Piran – patron saint of Cornwall

These Celtic missionaries have colourful backstories. St Piran – patron saint of Cornwall arrived sometime in the 5thcentury.  Thrown off an Irish cliff attached to a millstone, the sea became calm, and the saint floated ashore, surfing his millstone, to land at Perranzabuloe in Cornwall. Establishing himself at first as a miracle working hermit.  He is said to have re-discovered tin-smelting, when his black hearthstone of tin-bearing ore, grew hot and yielded a white cross of tin. Commemorated today in the Cornish flag of St Piran. 

Following the coast-path north from Perranporth will lead the walker with a slight detour to St Piran’s Oratory, Cross and Church. The Oratory is believed to be the oldest building dedicated to Christian worship in Britain. St Piran’s Day, 5 March, is still celebrated in Perranporth.  

Photo Credit: St Pirans Cross on the dunes above Perranporth, Cornwall. Photographer Sue Thomas

Legend has it that St Ursula was the daughter of King Dionotus of Dumnonia.

At the request of her father, she set sail with 11,000 virginal handmaidens to join her future husband Conan Meriadoc the pagan governor of Brittany. Ursula declared that before her marriage she would undertake a pilgrimage to Rome, where her intended should be baptised. Hearing that the pagan Huns were besieging Cologne, Ursula persuaded the Pope and Bishop of Ravenna to join her in a holy mission to save the city.

Unfortunately, Ursula and her 11,000 ladies were massacred. Ursula is the patron Saint of female students, not commemorated in Cornwall, her relics are in Cologne. Legends aside, the piety of these early Celtic missionaries is well reflected in their simple chapels, which lie very often close to the Coast Path. 

The St Michael’s chapel on Rame Head is a magnificent example, another dedicated to St Helen, less restored, lies in a lovely spot on the path below Cape Cornwall.

However, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were not without their own challenges. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle tells us that the Viking raids began in 787.  Shades of history repeating itself.

‘Men climbed eagerly up the gangplank,
sand churned in the surf, warriors loaded
a cargo of weapons, shining war-gear
in the vessel’s hold, then heaved out,
away with a will in their wood-wreathed ship.
Over the waves, with the wind behind her
and foam at her neck, she flew like a bird.
until her curved prow had covered the distance
and on the following day, at the due hour,
those seafarers sighted land,

sunlit cliffs, sheer crags
and looming headlands, the landfall they sought’.

Seamus Heaney, translation the 10th century Anglo-Saxon poem ‘Beowulf’

Vikings make their mark

By 870 all of the independent Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria had fallen to the Vikings, King Alfred the Great, of Wessex, was in a tight spot.  In 876 the Viking King Guthrum attacked Wareham, in Dorset, one of the finest of Alfred’s system of fortified ‘burhs’ to survive and well worth a path detour to walk the ramparts.  The Normans built a Castle here, and it was a most important port for the export of wool until the 13thcentury when river silting favoured the newer port of Poole. In 878, Alfred was surprised at his Hall Palace at Chippenham, fleeing Guthrum’s forces, he took shelter in the Somerset marshes on the Isle of Athelney, where he also got into trouble burning the cakes.  No longer an Island, it is however possible to walk his causeway from Lyng to Athelney.  The long narrow housing plots on either side of the promontory road preserve the line of the medieval boundaries and at the western end of the village of Lyng, below the church are the remains of a massive ditch. The church on its raised platform may originally have formed part of the defences. This quiet, almost forgotten place is strangely evocative and worth a pilgrimage.

Alfred gathered his forces, counter-attacked and smashed the Viking army, his foe Guthrum chose to be baptised at Aller, and swore the Peace of Wedmore, opening the way for Alfred to reclaim London for the Saxons. Alfred’s son, Edward further removed the threat of Viking invasions.  Alfred’s grand-son, Athelstan deserves to be better known, building on Edward’s successes, he defeated first the Northumbrians, then the Scots, establishing the first truly English kingdom. In the South West, he completed the conquest of Cornwall, defeating the Britons in successive battles, the last in the hamlet of Boleigh, near Lamorna in 936. It is said that the ‘Pipers’ stones ½ mile from the path mark the positions of the opposing leaders.  Athelstan prayed in St Buryan Church, 2 miles from Lamorna, for success in his conquest of the Scilly Islands. Returning victorious, Athelstan founded one of the earliest monasteries in Cornwall at St Buryan. Until 1850, this Church and its co-chapels of St Sennen and St Levens comprised the only ‘Royal Peculiar’ in Cornwall. Outside the jurisdiction of the Bishop.  Athelstan regularised Church governance in Cornwall, establishing a Roman-rite Cathedral at St German’s, which remained the seat of the Bishop until 1050.  The Norman’s replaced the Anglo-Saxon cathedral with St German’s Priory, which remains the finest Norman building in the County.  

The advent of the Normans

We need to fast forward to the reign of the last Anglo-Saxon King, Edward the Confessor, the son of the Queen Emma of Normandy. Emma is unique in English history, wife of two English Kings and mother of two more.  Edward had spent years in exile in Normandy. He and his mother were no friends of the upstart Godwins and had Emma lived, unlikely to shed tears for Harold Godwinson’s death at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  Duke William moved swiftly to consolidate his conquest, replacing local English Lords with his followers and building strong stone castles across the land. Very often these were on Saxon sites, but the Saxons favoured timber for their buildings. Our word timber comes from the Saxon ‘timbe’. The ‘Roman’ church adopted by the Anglo-Saxons favoured stone building, but the Saxons lacked the skill of their conquerors and the few Anglo-Saxon churches which remain outside the south-west, are lucky survivors of a massive Norman replacement programme. 

Across the path there are fine examples of this Norman re-building.  Mighty Rougemont in Exeter, built in 1068 by William after a rebellion by the citizens against his rule.  Gytha, mother of the dead King Harold who was in the city, may have been a focal point, at any rate the citizens refused to swear fealty and Willian ruthlessly stamped on the uprising. Trematon, originally a Roman fort commanding the strategic crossing near Saltash, was Saxon from 959 and rebuilt as one of Earl Richard of Cornwall’s Castles from 1270. Totnes Castle one of the earliest Norman works, also established in 1068, by the Breton Lord Juhel, one of William’s commanders, the keep rebuilt, as we see the design today, in 1326.  Totnes also has one of the finest west country church towers built from 1450 in striking deep red permian sandstone, quarried near Paignton, and shipped up the Dart from Brixham. Testimony to the wealth of Totnes in the 15th century. The richest town after Exeter.

St  Michael’s Mount began as a Priory in 1135, fortified from 1193, and still with its wonderful layers of history visible to the visitor who takes advantage of the National Trust ownership. Tintagel Castle, was rebuilt by Richard, Earl of Cornwall in 1234.  Dartmouth Castle by the enterprising mayor, John Hawley, in 1388.  Hawley is particularly interesting, there is a fine brass of him in St Saviours Church in Dartmouth and he is said to be the model for Chaucer’s ‘Shipman’ in the Canterbury Tales of 1387.

A sea- captain whose home was in the West, was there – a Dartmouth man for all I know.

He rode a cob as well as he knew how, and was dressed in a knee-length woollen gown.

From a lanyard round his neck, a dagger hung under his arm. Summer had tanned him brown.

As rough a diamond as you’d hope to find, he’d tapped and lifted many a stoup of wine from Bordeaux, when the merchant wasn’t looking. He hadn’t time for scruples or fine feeling, for if he fought and got the upper hand, he’d send his captives home by sea, not land.

But as for seamanship, and calculation of moon, tides, currents, all hazards at sea, for harbour lore and skill in navigation, from Hull to Carthage there was none to touch him. He was shrewd adventurer, tough and hardy. By many a tempest had he been shaken. Between the Baltic and Cape Finisterre, and each inlet of Brittany and Spain. The ship he sailed was called ‘The Madeleine.’

A dozen years before, Chaucer was appointed to the important post of Controller of Customs and sent by King Edward III to Dartmouth. His mission, to enquire into the arrest of a Genoese cargo ship by the Mayor and bailiff. Chaucer knew Dartmouth people well and almost certainly met Hawley, one of its leading merchants, ship-owners, agent of the king, and occasional pirate. Also, Mayor 19 times!

Powderham Castle in 1400 by Sir Philip de Courtney, 2nd Earl of Devon and later transformed into a luxurious residence.  Rufus Castle on Portland, 1256, rebuilt as we see it today in 1460. 

Mightiest of all is magnificent Corfe, in Dorset, which was founded by William soon after his conquest of England.  Fought over in the 12th century civil war of King Stephen and Empress Matilda. The quiet countryside around Corfe has seen armies and sieges worthy of a Hollywood epic. 

St George’s Church in Dunster, near the North Devon Coast, was built for Benedictine monks in 1090 following the grant of the Saxon town and castle to the Norman, de Mohuns in 1086. However, things did not always go smoothly.  Dunster is a charming town with many signs of its medieval prosperity, although its 12th century harbour, Dunster Haven is long since silted and abandoned. The monks and townspeople squabbled over the use of the church. Finally, the Abbot of Glastonbury arbitrated a solution in 1498. The townsfolk were to have use of the nave and priory monks exclusive use of the chancel. To keep the peace a fine screen was built across the church between chancel and nave. It’s there to this day.  This solution was only valid for around 40 years. The dissolution of the monasteries made the whole matter irrelevant. The majority of West Country folk mourned the passing of their Roman Catholic rites and there were several uprisings, but that is a tale for another day.

Written by Bob Mark
Chair, South West Coast Path Association

This article is the second in a series exploring the history around the landscape of the South West Coast Path.
Read the first article: History Around the SW Coast Path – Part 1 – Prehistory – The Age of Megaliths, Bronze and Iron

Discover a selection of Heritage Walks on our website and explore the past as you travel.

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